FRIDAY FILE: This October 11, United Nation Member States, international organisations, and civil society celebrated the very first International Day of the Girl Child.
The landmark resolution declaring the day of the girl-child was passed in December 2011 by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly following a two-year campaign led by Plan International with the support of the Canadian government. It comes at a significant time, when the rights of young women and girls are at a crossroad of growing awareness and ongoing challenges.
By Ani Colekessian
Young women and girl activists are engaged at all levels, pushing for progressive language in the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD) Resolution on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents and youth, taking ownership of resource mobilization through the launch of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, leading and organizing at the AWID Forum, and devoting themselves to a number of grassroots initiatives.[i] The girl-child is supported by a number of international instruments [ii], but still she faces double discrimination, because she is young and because she is a girl.
The International Day of the Girl-Child is tasked with advocacy and action around the rights and unique challenges girls face every day. It signals a UN commitment to end gender-based discrimination, violence, and economic disparities disproportionately affecting girls.
The girl-child at birth
In many countries, girls experience discrimination from their earliest moments. Globally, social preferences for boys have led to the disappearance of an estimated 100 million infant-girls. While most prominent in parts of Asia (such as China and India), female infanticide does occur in other parts of the world, including the North. Across India, there are reports of families starving, drowning, burying and inducing life threatening sicknesses in girls. Some have gone as far as genitoplasty (surgical alteration of female sex organs) coupled with male hormone therapy to alter the sex of infant girls. Already at birth a girl’s life is at risk: morbidity rates of Infant-girls under 1-year old are 50 percent higher than boys of the same age and those under the age of 5, 40 percent higher.
Girls often encounter barriers to formal education; they are less likely than boys to be enrolled in school, which significantly affects their lifestyle and the opportunities available to them. Each additional year of primary school increases her eventual earnings by 10 to 20 percent; leads to later marriage; fewer and healthier offspring of her own, who have a higher chance of an education;[iii] and a reduced risk of HIV/AIDS. Still, only 30% of girls are registered in secondary education today and 35 million school-aged girls (half of whom are in Sub-Saharan Africa) are out of school.
Without formal education, girls continue in an ongoing cycle of repression, in which they are expected to assume traditional gender roles, including that of domestic caretaker, while brothers attend school and assume their “male” provider role. Religious fundamentalisms also play a part in reaffirming gender roles, in Afghanistan, for example, girls are forbidden and their safety threatened by attending school. Tuesday’s attempted assassination of 14 year-old Malala Yousafzai, in Swat valley, North West Pakistan by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), only serves to highlight the risks girls face in accessing and advocating for the right of girls to education. Between her safety, family obligations and social pressures, there are several reasons why girls leave school, even in the United States, 1 in 4 girls drop out.
Most prevalent in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 60 million child-brides the world over – 25 000 each day – many wed to men more than twice their senior. It is also common in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 29% of girls between 15-24 are married before reaching 18. Overall, 82 million girls in developing countries will be married before they turn 18. Married at such a young age, girls are often forced to leave school or require permission from their husbands and are at greater risk of experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. For many families, poverty and social-pressures are contributing factors. Girls are sometimes seen as economic burdens and parents may consent based on financial necessity. Some may also consider early marriage as a way to extend male guardianship, protect their daughters from sexual violence and pregnancy outside of marriage.[iv]
Members of the Egyptian constituent assembly have pushed for a legal marriage age as low as 9 years in the new Constitution and proposed amendments by the High Islamic Council to the 2009 Malian Family Code include a marriage age of 15, similar to the laws in Bolivia, Mexico, Kuwait, and Iran. Even the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages fails to identify a specific minimum age requirement and today, one in seven girls in many developing countries are married before the age of 15.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)
Girls who marry at a young age not only risk leaving school early, they also become particularly vulnerable to complications during pregnancy and childbirth as well as STIs and HIV and AIDS. Maternal deaths are more common among young mothers and rates of infant mortality and morbidity are also increased.
In at least 28 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a centuries-old practice of removing part or all of the external genitalia of women for non-medical reasons. The tradition, grounded in cultural, religious and social beliefs is mostly carried out on girls between the ages of 4 and 12 as a way to control their sexuality. The risks are severe and include mental and physical implications, such as hemorrhages, urinary and/or fecal incontinence, cysts, and infections. In some cases, young women are shunned from their communities because of their uncontrollable symptoms. An estimated 92 million girls in Africa above the age of 10 have undergone FGM.
Though the CPD Resolution on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents and youth brought to light many important issues faced by girls globally, some governments continue to limit and challenge the concepts and definitions of reproductive rights and sexual rights established at Cairo and Beijing respectively, including abortion, sexual orientation and sexual education – issues that affect girls worldwide.[v]
More than half of all new HIV infections occur in youth between the ages of 15 to 24, of which numbers are higher for girls than boys in countries with high prevalence. Girls are also less likely than boys to have basic knowledge on HIV and AIDS prevention and in some regions, HIV-infected men coerce young girls into sexual intercourse under the mistaken belief that intercourse with a virgin will cure their HIV and AIDS.[vi]
Globally, 150 million girls under the age of 18 have experienced forced intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. Though most cases remain unreported to authorities due to feelings of shame, panic or disbelief, 36%-62% of reported sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 15.[vii] In the United States, 54% of all female rape cases occur before age 18 and 1 in 5 secondary school girls aged 14 to 18 have been physically or sexually abused by a romantic partner. In addition to the serious emotional, physical and psychological trauma associated with gender-based violence, according to UNICEF, sexual violence against girls is directly and indirectly related to rising rates of HIV and AIDS following forced intercourse.[viii] In some cases, the trauma and shame can also lead to lost childhoods, abandoned education, the loss of dignity and self-esteem.[ix]
As child-soldiers, girls are not only recruited as combatants but into domestic and sexual slavery as well. The 20-year conflict in Northern Uganda saw the abduction of girls as young as 8 into the bush and in Nepal, girls made up 43% of Maoist child-soldiers. Girls are often taken in as the “wives” of commanders and subject to sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections (STI), including HIV/AIDS. Upon their return, girls are sometimes shunned from their families and communities, no longer fitting into accepted norms of femininity (including virginity). And often the reintegration of ex-combatants has failed to recognize the role of girls in combat. Many programmes offer reintegration packages (skills training, food, money) in exchange for weapons, wholly useless to girl-combatants who are often unarmed. In many cases, girls who bypass reintegration programs are at risk of isolation and poverty.[x]
October 11: Capturing the Day
The challenges captured here are just some of the many barriers girls face every day, and the reason why hundreds of young girls lobbied for a day of awareness under the umbrella of Plan. Empowering girls to live in a world free from violations is not only a basic human right, it is critical for economic growth, the eradication of poverty, their meaningful participation in decision-making and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
In her speech to 50 Key UN Diplomats, 19 year-old Girls Speakers Bureau member, Saba, illustrated the lived experience, “I have no title to my name. I am just a girl. I want you to picture me placing a huge stonewall in front of you. There is no way to climb it or go around it. Essentially you’re trapped and invisible. ‘Why me?’ you ask. What if I told you it’s just because of your gender? Wouldn’t you feel helpless and vulnerable? This is how many girls feel every day.” It is each of the actions and events centered around the International Day of the Girl-Child that will promote equal treatment and opportunities for girls to get around these “stonewalls” they run into every day.
[ii] Including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW), the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (UNSCR1325).
[iv] See UNICEF Protection Information Sheet at www.unicef.org/protection/files/Child_Marriage.pdf
[v] For additional information on the CPD and young women, see the AWID Friday File, Victory for Youth at CPD: What does it Mean? At http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/Friday-Files/Victory-for-Youth-at-CPD-What-does-it-mean
[vi] See UNICEF Girls, HIV/AIDS and Education at http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Girls_HIV_AIDS_and_Education_%28English%29_rev.pdf
[vii] See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Violence Prevention at http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/together/index.html
[viii] See UNICEF Press Release. New initiative to address sexual violence against girls launched at Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York at http://www.unicef.org/media/media_51217.html